XIU XIU with FINAL FANTASY and LENIN I SHUMOV at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West), Friday (July 30). $10. 416-531-4635.
Pop music is all about gross generalizations. Most people can relate to Big Themes like love and joy when they're nicely sanded into vague metaphors, so your average hook-filled ditty serves up easy axioms and abstractions - "I like you," "You hurt me," "Don't break my heart" - engineered for universal appeal. Xiu Xiu resist turning their sentiments into easy-to-swallow pills. The Seattle-based purveyors of confrontational arty anti-pop - what's been dubbed "confessional victim rock" - ground their tunes in specificity. Instead of open-ended ballads about faceless boys and girls, lead singer Jamie Stewart addresses particular people and tells stories so vivid it's hard not to visualize them in full technicolor detail.
"I've always found that the most specific music was the stuff I related to the most," explains Stewart, a sometime preschool teacher and recovered Valley Boy, from a cellphone in Chicago. "Even though it wasn't about my particular life, the person who was writing it came from such a singular, personal experience, and because I knew it was true and not just a fable, it seemed more honest."
Stewart admits it can be draining to lay himself on the line, especially since such honesty effaces the line between his public and private lives. As a result, he's ended up talking about stuff in interviews - sexuality, molestation, the recent suicide of his father, record producer Michael Stewart - that most people only share with their therapists.
"I think if I had a public persona, it'd be really difficult to shift between that and this thinly veiled ultra-personal freakout dude," he pauses, choosing his words carefully. "Sometimes it's not exactly emotionally feasible to do that, but at least I try.
"This is gonna make me sound like even more of a pretentious dick, but I went through a period where I was really obsessed with reading the big jazz dudes' biographies, and when people like Monk and Charles Mingus and John Coltrane were making music, they talked about trying to be exactly themselves while they were playing. Obviously, we're not doing anything on the scale they were, but that approach was a big inspiration for me and everyone else I've worked with."
When your band mandate is to relate only experiences that have happened to you and your friends - without blurring faces to protect the accused - it can cause friction in your relationships. Stewart's mom and sister were horrified when he exposed their family skeletons on Nieces Pieces, a darkly pretty chant on Xiu Xiu's recent Fabulous Muscles (5RC) disc.
But it's hard to deny the emotional wallop of such honest writing. Support Our Troops OH!, another track, features high-pitched grinding, chaotic beats and churning waves of sound over which Stewart mutters in a deadpan monotone, "Did you know you were going to shoot off a four-year-old girl's head and look across her car seat down into her skull and see into her throat, and did you know her dad would say to you, 'Please sir, can I take her body home?'"
The juxtaposition of the chilling anecdote, Stewart's lack of affect, and the haphazard sonic desperation makes the song - which blurs the distinction between industrial noise and modern classical - one of the most powerful anti-war statements in recent memory.
Some folks find Xiu Xiu's sincerity hard to stomach, particularly cuz Stewart and co. offer only sporadic moments of redemption. This isn't all that shocking, considering the band was named for Joan Chen's 1998 downer of a film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Stewart frankly insists he wants his band's music to be as difficult to listen to as their namesake movie is hard to watch.
"I think the biggest thing I can't stand in music is irony," he gripes. "I find it incredibly upsetting. Embracing irony as an aesthetic is such a waste of time and life."